Hedy Yu: embracing my Chinese heritage healed my relationship with my mom

This is part of our 5-part series where we share stories from LA-based community members and leaders on reconnecting with and reimagining their identities. We hope these stories ignite some deeper conversations for you, too, because we believe that this journey of self-discovery makes us stronger and fuller as individuals and community members. 


Hedy Yu

Co-founder of Rooted Fare

How does your heritage affect your life? 

Heritage has affected every part of my life, including the quality of my life in the sense that there were things and even interests that I fought against because I was so worried about being a stereotype.

This was in many facets of my identity, including being Asian, being female. With all of my might, I tried to fight against things that would make me be perceived in certain way. Because I did this, I actually denied myself the true joy of just exploring and being who I was.

I could be good at math, have an interest in language. But I could also be athletic and all these other things. There aren't any specific characteristics, now that I look back, that are associated with any particular identity(s). It truly is just about me, myself. 

Again, I think it is everything. It's what I eat, it's how I talk, it's how I connect, it's how I love, it's who I love. So I would say it's everything.

What is your relationship with your heritage like now? 

Well, I will say, super proud of my heritage now. I think of more ways that I could be more proud and not like blindly proud, but to know why I should feel proud for something that I am. I would say it's still a work in progress. There are still moments when I falter.

I think in particular when we've come out with videos for instance, the “We’re Chinese-American” part one and part two videos on Instagram that went viral-ish. I feel like reading through the comments, sometimes people's comments hurt me. I was talking to a friend about it and some of the ones that hurt me most were the ones that said, “You're not Chinese and you're not American either.” Or “You're just neither of those things that you claim to be.” 

My friend was saying that this was an opportunity to investigate why that hurt. And so I am always thinking about how I can connect further and how I can be more prideful. Could I be so confident in my identity that none of those things would matter, basically becoming bulletproof to any comment?

Finish the sentence: connecting with my Chinese American culture has led me to [blank].

Connecting with my Chinese American heritage has led me to be more joyful and to feel more calm and still in my own body. I used to do a lot of fighting and denying and now accept this part of myself and all the things that make me, me. I'm so much happier with myself and I feel like that carries into my relationships, too. 

Was there a moment that made you consciously think about your relationship with your heritage, or when you wanted to connect with your heritage differently?

One of the first moments that I started thinking more consciously about my identity was in college. I went to a very white school that had a lot of very liberal teachings or attitudes that I agreed with. So I felt like going to this school, everyone would get me and I would get them.

Of course, everyone is very different or unique. But I remember being in this group of friends and they would crack jokes about things that I didn't understand. I was like, “I don't know why that's funny. Should I think it's funny? Is something wrong with me for not understanding that reference?”

Through college too, I noticed that there was an Asian student association. And I also did start to realize that there weren't that many people who looked like me. Why did that make me feel so uncomfortable? Why did I feel so self-conscious about myself now? So I think all of those feelings led me to think more about just me in general, but that did lead me down the path of wanting to know more about and connect with my heritage. 

It was such a shock going to this college (University of Richmond) - I love U of R. I grew up in Diamond Bar, which is majority Asian, so a lot of signs were in Mandarin or Korean or Japanese. My mom, being a first gen immigrant, didn't need to learn much English at all to get by. That's wonderful that she was able to build a life here.

But also that was the norm for me, being surrounded by people who look like me, spoke my language, or maybe different ones, but that I felt understood by. So going off to college, seeing nobody who looked like me, no one who ate my food--they didn't even cook the rice properly at the dining hall–that made me feel very unseen on my college campus and made me go on this whole journey. 

Was there a time you felt negatively about your heritage? 

Most of my childhood I felt pretty negatively about my heritage. It showed up in a lot of the ways that I interacted with my mom, because she practically raised me on her own. There was friction of being taught certain things in school and then being taught other things from my mom and finding them incongruent or incompatible.

I was like, okay, how do I navigate these things? And because of those challenges, I just fought one, which was the one that didn't seem to fit my environment, which was my mom and Chinese traditions and ideals.

It showed up in my thinking that Chinese aesthetics were super lame. A story that I tell people is when my mom so graciously wanted to give me a jade necklace with red thread, which is very traditional, I thought it was the ugliest thing ever. I told her that I didn't want it.

That's one example of me physically rejecting something. But that can also be symbolic of some of the teachings and other things as well. Now, I'm learning to love all parts of that heritage. 

Was there a time you felt proud of your heritage?

Now, all the time. Once I changed how I felt about myself and heritage, everywhere I look, I find things to be prideful about. When I see my mom, I'm super proud. I'm like, “Wow, you made it so many years here and you raised me and my sister and now my nephew.”

She's also a TCM (traditional Chinese medicine) practitioner. And she does beautiful works in Chinese (国画 guo2 hua4). It's so beautiful. I feel so proud of my mom and my heritage just by just seeing her live. And then I'm always inspired by Ashley. And just any time that I see something that reminds me of my heritage, I'm proud.

What did learning about your self, familial, or cultural history do for you? Did it empower you? How and why?

Yes! Learning more about my family's history helped me understand myself. My parents have never been super hard on me. They've always had the attitude of if ‘it makes you happy and if you really tried your best, then that's all we can ask of you,’ which I'm very thankful for. But also, my parents have hard edges.

There were times where I didn't understand that and fought against that, too. Also having this bigger conversation when I talk to my friends about how their parents don't say “I love you” or don't hug them and things. 

Learning about my family's history of going through the Cultural Revolution and them also being the first class of college students definitely made me understand why my family is the way that it is and maybe why now I also have particular values. It helped me to really empathize with the people who raised me. Also learning about non-heritage related things about my family made things make sense.

I've always been really interested in literature and storytelling. And it wasn't until middle school when I was really prying into the lives of my parents that I found out that they were literature professors in China, both of them. My dad has written multiple books in Mandarin, which I can't read. But yeah, it just started to make sense.

Those are things that are in me and my blood and that makes sense to me. It's been really beautiful to learn these things because it doesn't feel random anymore. 

What are your dreams for our community? 

I just dream for our community to feel proud and to feel happy within themselves. I want us to be more curious about why things are the way that they are, because I do believe that when we can understand more, we have more of a hope of living the life we want. If we want things to be different, we need to understand the why now that applies to us personally, too.

My dream is that our community can feel love for ourselves, feel love for our neighbors, and also have the biggest, wildest dreams that we can and to go after them and feel supported in whatever it is. If you don't want to be a doctor, it’s fine. But if you want to be a doctor, cool! Just to feel supported and seen in whatever it is that you want in your life. 

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